Henry Fielding (April 22, 1707 – October 8, 1754) was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the novel Tom Jones.
Born at Sharpham near Glastonbury in Somerset in 1707, Fielding was educated at Eton College. His younger sister, Sarah, was also destined to be a successful writer. After a romantic episode with a young woman that ended in his getting into trouble with the law, he went to London where his literary career began.
In 1728, he travelled to Leiden to study. On his return, he began writing for the theatre, some of his work being savagely critical of the contemporary government under Sir Robert Walpole. The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is alleged to be a direct result of his activities. The particular play that triggered the Licensing Act was The Vision of the Golden Rump, but Fielding's satires had set the tone. When the Licensing Act passed, political satire on the stage was virtually impossible, and playwrights whose works were staged were viewed as suspect. Fielding therefore retired from the theatre and resumed his career in law, becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1748 for Middlesex and Westminster.
Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. His Tragedy of Tragedies of Tom Thumb was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. He also contributed a number of works to journals of the day. He wrote for Tory periodicals, usually under the name of "Captain Hercules Vinegar". As Justice of the Peace he issued a warrant for the arrest of Colley Cibber for "murder of the English language".
Fielding's first major success in a novel was Shamela, an anonymous parody of Samuel Richardson's melodramatic novel, Pamela. It is a satire that follows the model of the famous Tory satirists of the previous generation (Jonathan Swift and John Gay, in particular). He followed this up with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela's brother, Joseph. Although also begun as a parody, this work developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is considered to mark Fielding's debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies). This was The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great. This novel is sometimes thought of as his first because he almost certainly began composing it before he wrote "Shamela" and "Joseph Andrews". It is a satire of Walpole that draws a parallel between Walpole and Jonathan Wild, the infamous gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves being run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a "Great Man" (a common epithet for Walpole) should culminate only in the apotheosis of greatness: being hanged. His anonymously-published The Female Husband of 1746 is a fictionalized account of a notorious case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage. Though a minor item in Fielding's total oevre, the subject is consistent with his ongoing preoccupation with fraud, sham, and masks. His greatest work was Tom Jones (1749), a meticulously constructed picaresque novel telling the convoluted and hilarious tale of how a foundling came into a fortune.
His first wife, Charlotte, on whom he later modeled the heroines of both Tom Jones and Amelia, died in 1744. Three years later Fielding married her former maid, Mary, disregarding public opinion. Despite this, he became London's Chief Magistrate and his literary career went from strength to strength. Joined by his younger half-brother John, he helped found what some have called London's first police force, the Bow Street Runners in 1750. However, his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he went abroad in 1753 in search of a cure. He died in Lisbon in 1754 where his tomb at the English Church may be visited. Despite being now blind, John Fielding succeeded his older brother as Chief Magistrate and became known as the 'Blind Beak' of Bow Street for his ability to recognise criminals by their voice alone.
Partial list of works
- Love in Several Masques - play, 1728
- Rape upon Rape - play, 1730. Adapted by Bernard Miles as Lock Up Your Daughters! in 1959, filmed in 1974
- The Temple Beau - play, 1730
- The Author's Farce - play, 1730
- The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb - play, 1731
- Grub-Street Opera - play, 1731
- The Modern Husband - play, 1732
- Pasquin - play, 1736
- The Historical Register for the Year 1736 - play, 1737
- An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews - novel, 1741
- The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams (Joseph Andrews) - novel, 1742
- The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great - novel, 1743, ironic treatment of Jonathan Wild, the most notorious underworld figure of the time.
- The Female Husband or the Surprising History of Mrs Mary alias Mr George Hamilton, who was convicted of having married a young woman of Wells and lived with her as her husband, taken from her own mouth since her confinement - pamphlet, fictionalized report, 1746
- The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling - novel, 1749
- A Journey from This World to the Next - 1749
- Amelia - novel, 1751
- The Covent Garden Journal - 1752
- Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon - travel narrative, 1755
- Tom Thumb N.D.
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